Books

Royce Kurmelovs
Just Money

If you’re already anxious about the post-pandemic economy, you may not want to read Just Money, Royce Kurmelovs’ genuinely terrifying picture of contemporary indebtedness. But you probably should, nonetheless.

Even before Covid-19 maxed out their credit cards, millions of Australians were surviving on lay-by. In 2017, the Commonwealth Bank estimated that one in three of its customers would struggle to access $500 for an emergency.

That emergency’s now well and truly arrived.

Kurmelovs begins Just Money by describing his own prosaic crisis. After years scraping by in precarious work, he’d never thought to insure himself – and then he hit another car. An instant of carelessness left him hopelessly in debt.

He uses his own descent into financial insecurity to investigate usury in its 21st-century incarnation. The company that buys his debt, for instance, belongs to a larger entity that makes the usual woke commitments to gender equity and the United Nations Global Compact on Human Rights. Yet almost everyone involved in Australia’s billion-dollar debt collection industry knows that their business entails shaking down the poor and the desperate.

In other countries, the deregulation of finance arrived courtesy of conservatives. In Australia, Kurmelovs says, the Labor Party implemented its own distinctive version of the Reaganite/Thatcherite program, with Keating’s decision to float the dollar signalling the beginning of a monstrous expansion of the financial services sector, now larger here (in relative terms) than just about anywhere else.

Kurmelovs explains how the various components of what Labor once called “economic rationalism” reinforced each other. The growth of payday lending corresponded with the decline of the welfare state, even as the entrepreneurial mentality presiding in the Department of Social Services facilitated the notorious “robo-debt” scheme, an attempt to assign debts through algorithms. Meanwhile, the expansion of the mortgage industry locked an entire generation out of home ownership, while further enriching the already privileged. Scott Morrison, for instance, once worked for the Property Council – and now presides over a parliament in which 226 politicians collectively own more than 450 houses.

Kurmelovs gets, eventually, on top of his finances. But the nation as a whole remains well and truly in the red, with the household-debt-to-GDP ratio the second-highest among developed economies.

This punchy, readable narrative provides an excellent introduction to a subject about which many people don’t like to speak. As Kurmelovs says, we’re made to feel personally guilty if we owe money. Yet the real problem is both structural and collective – as we are almost certainly about to discover.

Jeff Sparrow

UQP, 298pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2020 as "Royce Kurmelovs, Just Money".

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Reviewer: Jeff Sparrow